Well, before yesterday I wasn't entirely convinced that it had been worth it to spend my few vacation days in Europe with a little side trip to Prague. But I decided to spend my last day fully devoted to the region's Jewish history, and came away quite impressed with the multi-building Jewish museum, whose exhibits are organized in very sensible fashion as you go from synagogue to synagogue, with everything explained very clearly in Czech and English (but not German, which is quite indicative of the decline of German-speaking people in the area since the time before the two World Wars). The two most profound parts were the handpainted lists of names of people from the towns and cities of Bohemia and Moravia who are known to have been murdered by the Nazis, covering the walls of Pinkas Synagogue, and the terribly moving exhibit on children's artistic efforts from the transitional concentration camp at Terezín/Theresienstadt northwest of Prague. This is where the Jews established some form of self-government and education which the Germans eventually encouraged for propaganda purposes as their "model camp". A model camp where almost all of the residents, living under the shadow of transport to "the east" that could come at any moment, did indeed end up there after a few short weeks or months (i.e., sent straight to Auschwitz) where they mostly went directly to the gas chamber. Every piece of artwork is from some kid roughly 10-15 years old, with the date of birth, date of the artwork, and date of their death at Auschwitz, with each panel organized into themes the kids had put into their work, like their persecution and ostracism in their villages during the year or two prior to deportation, and life in the camps, and some truly hauntingly raw portrayals of single concepts such as works that were titled simply "fear".
This was all especially profound for me since I had just come upstairs from seeing scores of my distant relatives' names all over the walls of the synagogue. I had no idea I would find even a single recognizable name, let alone all these scores of people from the families of my mom's grandparents on her father's side (more on that in a locked post). After the halls of names, you pass through the unbelievably concentrated old Jewish cemetery, where nearly every headstone is in contact with several others on all sides, all of them at crazy angles.
So anyway, after that nice full day of gut-wrenching holocaustin', (but try the museum in D.C. if you want the full-blast all-day firehose), I had some extra Czech monies to burn before leaving, and I just happened to walk into a grocery full of many Czech beers at nice cheap prices (less than a dollar per 0.5 liter bottle). I ended up with a big bag of them (along with some sensible bananas and plums) and took a detour to the Náměstí Míru
metro stop (the longest escalator in Prague and one of the longest in the world, apparently, at 290 feet), where I carried my quarry up and down in a victory lap before heading back to my hostel for the night. Hardly slept, though, because half the people in the room were out clubbing until 4 am, and when they came back they all started chatting about their sister who goes to BU or whatever nonsense, and texting with their cellphones which weren't even on silent, and typing away on laptops, as if there weren't a bunch of people in the room trying to sleep. Maybe I've outgrown the desire to sleep in communal quarters... it's just too hit and miss when it comes to people behaving sensibly.
The train ride toward Holland today has been very fun -- ended up in a compartment with a girl from Vancouver (I didn't ask if her name was Alberta, but I kind of wish I had), a jolly Westfalian, and a Czech woman who lives in the UK with an English husband and was traveling with her mother. I had seven bottles of beer with me, fresh from the fridge, so the German and I had two each, which had to pass the Czech mother's smile-vs-frown test before they could be approved for consumption :-) Just one of those nice train rides where you talk about all kinds of things and have a great time, then go your separate ways without ever learning each other's names.
Upon arrival in the Netherlands, it turned out that Nijmegen is currently really hard to get to from the east or north due to construction at the Arnhem station, so I got all super-detoured for an extra hour and a half, heading west over to Amersfoort, then southwest to Utrecht, then southeast to Denbosch (which is actually spelled with a word beginning with an appostrophe, 's-Hertogenbosch
, so no wonder they call it by a different name... also, check out that hilarious coat of arms! A couple of woodsmen "dressed" in what appear to be a light sprinkling of vines, wielding enormous smash-your-head clubs), then finally northeast to Nijmegen. Got to see the lovely countryside, absolutely full of cows of various colors and sizes! I think there was even a farm of miniature Dexters
. Lots of horses and ponies too, with the young kiddos doing eyebrow-raising things like trying to hump their mothers. And a scarecrow in a field of crops that looked like a small orange octopus, or perhaps a Cthulhu? Meanwhile on the final train to Nijmegen someone immediately started banging on the doors, from the inside, when they closed and the train began its journey, and she kept on sobbing and wailing and ranting like a crazy person for at least 20 minutes, though I couldn't understand a word. The Netherlands, a dimension of crazy and/or awesome. I kind of really want to see what Amsterdam must have in store, at this rate.